NFL’s new look starts with Saints

Jul 11, 2006 12:59 AM

In the NFL, making offseason changes to address weaknesses is essential to success.

In 2002, the defending champion Patriots defense got old fast and fell apart, finishing 31st in the NFL against the run. If you can’t stop the run, why would opponents even try to pass? The next two seasons New England’s defense was seventh overall (third against the run) and ninth overall (sixth against the run) leading the way to consecutive titles.

In 2003, the Steelers were a pass-happy team, with the running game ranking 30th. The last two years, Bill Cowher got back to running the football, long a Steelers staple. The changes resulted in a 31-7 record and a Super Bowl title.

Let’s take a look at some NFL teams that have made offseason moves they hope will tighten up some weaknesses in 2006.

SAINTS: Last season was a train wreck. The Saints played all their games on the road because of Hurricane Katrina, then cleaned house after a 3-13 campaign. This year brings all kinds of new promise, especially on offense. Former Cowboys assistant Sean Payton is the new head coach. Payton coached the quarterbacks for Bill Parcells in Dallas and also held the title of assistant head coach.

The Saints were aggressive in the offseason, adding free-agent QB Drew Brees and signing him to a six-year contract. Brees had two brilliant seasons with the Chargers. The only concern is his badly injured throwing shoulder sustained during the final game of the 2005 season. Brees underwent successful surgery, but it will take five months to be ready. Brees or backup QB Todd Bouman will have good targets with former All-Pro WR Joe Horn, Donte’ Stallworth, RB Deuce McCallister and Heisman Trophy rookie RB Reggie Bush.

New Orleans couldn’t believe Bush was available after Houston passed on him. What a backfield!

LIONS: The good news is there are a ton of changes. The bad news is that GM Matt Millen isn’t one of them. Still, there are more good things to get Lions’ fans excited about, or at least interested. QB Joey Harrington is gone, and the team was 18-37 with him. New head coach Rod Marinelli spent the past 10 seasons in Tampa Bay as defensive line coach. He brings in Donnie Henderson as the new defensive coordinator and Mad Mike Martz to upgrade what was a dysfunctional offense (27th).

Both assistants preach attacking the opponent on both sides of the ball. Coming aboard is QB Jon Kitna, who was very productive as a starter before giving way to Carson Palmer in Cincinnati. There are tools for the coaches to work with, in first round pick LB Ernie Sims (Florida State) along with young WRs Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams — all former first round draft picks.

CHIEFS: As usual, the Chiefs were deadly on offense (No. 1 in the NFL) and terrible on defense (30 against the pass, 29 in sacks). Longtime coach Dick Vermeil retired and Kansas City brings in Herm Edwards from the Jets as head coach. This was a bit of a surprise, as Edwards couldn’t be more different than Vermeil. Edwards is a defensive guy and his offenses were ultra-conservative with New York.

Edwards takes over a devastating Chiefs spread-offense that might be very different. He said the offense will run the ball more in 2006, believing it will ultimately help the defense. Expect to see a lot of RB Larry Johnson in a more conservative offense. The Chiefs continued their rebuilding on defense by adding a pass rusher with the No. 20 pick, selecting Penn State DE Tamba Hali. Note: The UNDER is 11-6 in Kansas City’s last 17 games.

TITANS: Two years ago in the offseason the Titans shed $27 million in salary cap dollars. This past offseason they cut ties with longtime QB Steve McNair. Notice a pattern? This year sees the arrival of QB Vince Young and RB LenDale White.

This was an interesting draft haul. Reports are that longtime Coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Norm Chow badly wanted to draft QB Matt Leinart, but the owner wants to sell tickets and chose Young. If that’s the case, how long will this coaching staff be around? Regardless, this is a team in serious transition. Note: The Titans are just 5-11 SU and 6-10 ATS at home the last two seasons.

CARDS: The 2005 Cardinals were a good example of how stats can sometimes lie. Arizona was No. 8 in total defense, ninth in total offense, including No. 1 in passing! Yet, they were 5-11, including a sloppy -11 in turnover margin. Arizona too often failed to finish off long drives, and had no balance (first in passing offense, last in rushing). This season promises to be much better on offense.

Veteran QB Kurt Warner (11 TDs, 9 INTs) completed 64 percent of his passes before an injury shelved his season. He will start, but USC QB Matt Leinart was taken as the No. 10 overall pick. Arizona brings in free agent prize RB Edgerrin James (1,506 yards) from the Colts to provide offensive balance. The Cards already have stars in WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. After 16 straight losing seasons, Arizona may finally have the weapons to end that streak. Note: Arizona is 12-12 SU, 14-10 ATS the last three seasons at home, but 3-21 SU, 7-17 ATS on the road.